Yet again we find ourselves watching a community mourn innocent lives that were lost at the hand of gun violence. And yet again, before memorial services have even been held for those who died, combatants in the culture war have taken up arms to secure victory over this tragic moment.
On Monday, March 27, an assailant armed with two assault weapons and a handgun entered The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, and opened fire, fatally wounding six victims before being shot and killed by police.
Three of the victims were children. The other three were senior citizens.
The victims were eight and nine-year-olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, along with three adult victims in their early 60s: Cynthia Peak, Katherine Koonce, and Mike Hill.
As expected, the conversation about gun control, a conversation as perennial as these types of shootings themselves, was quickly underway. What was less expected is that the assailant was a 28-year-old former student of the school who identifies as transgender and was likely motivated by hatred toward Christians.
In a press conference on the day of the shooting, Nashville Chief of Police John Drake said that he believed two of the guns used in the fatal assault were obtained “legally” and “locally.” He also confirmed that the attack appeared to be “targeted.”
Somewhat symbolically, the attack took place in Nashville, a place where the civil religion of “God and guns” is known to thrive, and which serves as an institutional and cultural epicenter for much of American evangelicalism. It is also a place where trans rights have recently been highly contested.
God, Guns, and Mass Shootings
As to gun regulations, a number of politicians and pundits were quick to chime in with their continued, almost religious, support for unfettered gun access.
On the day of the shooting, former Trump official and conservative Christian commentator William Wolfe tweeted, “The guns are never the issue. Ever.”
However, based on current gun legislation, it is not an entirely difficult case to make that guns are at least part of the problem.
In Tennessee, a permit is not required to carry a firearm, including semi-automatic rifles, whether openly or concealed. While background checks are required to purchase a firearm, that requirement is waived in instances of private sales. There are no wait periods on gun sales, and guns are not required to be registered.
Further, none of this is the result of an oversight. It’s an essential part of the political and religious vision for certain influential groups.
Emblematic of this reality is Nashville’s representative in Congress, Andy Ogles, whose recent Christmas card featured an image of his family standing in front of the tree with an array of rifles—combining the symbolism of a Christian holy day with an assault weapon for each family member.
Since “God and guns” are so central to a particular vision for American life, considering even minor tweaks to current gun regulations is tantamount to heresy. Thus, regular mass shootings are unfortunately a fact of life about which we can do nothing.
This is an argument that has come out in spades this week.
“Unless you turn virtually every school into a prison—which no one wants that to occur, with locks and bars and multiple stations you have to go through to even get in and out of the school—it’s going to be a really tough thing to stop determined mass shooters,” Former FBI agent Brad Garrett said to ABC News on Monday.
Garrett added, “And the reason I’m saying that is that it’s another example of, if you want to get in, you’re gonna probably get in.”
“We’re not gonna fix it. Criminals are gonna be criminals,” stated Tim Burchett, another congressional representative for Tennessee, from the steps of the Capitol Building. “I don’t think you can stop the gun violence. You’ve gotta change people’s hearts. As a Christian, as we talk about the church, and I’ve said this many times, I think we need a revival in this country.”
To be transparent, I find such responses baffling. They only make sense in the context of someone trying to maintain the status quo of their cultural or political tribe rather than seeking the common good.
Make no mistake: gun regulation is a pro-life issue. And many Christians find themselves on the wrong side of it.
Far too many children have been sacrificed on the altar of firearms. Gun violence is the leading cause of death among children. From Sandy Hook to Uvalde to every violent tragedy in between, we wring our hands as we send thoughts and prayers. But whatever you do, don’t touch our guns. That would be un-Christian.
This isn’t to say that we need to get rid of all guns in America, or that we even could. But second graders living in one of the wealthiest and most developed nations on the planet should not need to regularly practice drills for the not entirely unlikely event of an active shooter.
I have read and understand the Second Amendment. But there is no reason that someone like the Nashville shooter, who was reportedly under the care of physicians for an emotional disorder, should have been so easily armed with military grade weaponry. Yet despite the deep concerns of the shooter’s parents and without their knowledge, the assailant legally owned seven firearms, purchased from five different local gun stores.
Advocating for new measures that will limit access to firearms among those who may use them to murder children is not “liberal” or “woke.” To me, it seems as Christian as it is commonsensical.
That this is a controversial thing to say in many Christian circles is indicative of the fact that a large swath of us have been fighting for a particular culture under the banner of Christianity that bears little resemblance to Christ.
When it comes to this issue, many evangelical culture warriors have become experts in deflection. Nevertheless, this time around, what they are deflecting attention to is legitimately concerning.
When Culture War Turns Physically Violent
Later in the day on Monday, it was reported that the shooter in Nashville was a 28-year-old former student of the school who identified as a trans man. The shooter reportedly had drawn a detailed map of the school in advance of the shooting and had a manifesto that included plans to attack other locations. (At the time of this article, the manifesto has not been released to the public.)
Some believe the shooting may have come at least partly in response to recent state legislation that bans gender affirming healthcare for minors, including hormone treatments and surgical interventions.
The battle for this legislation made a major cultural splash earlier this year, as LGBTQ+ activists framed it as a bald-faced attempt to marginalize sexual minorities that shows utter disregard for suicide rates among young trans individuals.
Nevertheless, though these medical interventions are billed as necessary to stave off suicide among underaged children who experience gender dysphoria, no research has presented reliable data demonstrating that the long-term effect of gender affirming care is a net positive for mental health. At best, it’s net-zero. At worst, it permanently harms children—a not inconsiderable number whose gender dysphoria may have even resolved itself as they developed into full physical and psychological maturity.
Yet to oppose the widespread implementation of such “care” makes you a bigot to some. Rhetoric surrounding gender affirming healthcare often paints its opponents in stark terms as evil oppressors.
It is also worth noting that in the wake of Monday’s events, a number of media outlets have attempted to portray the Nashville shooter in a sympathetic light, as the victim of an evangelical theological system that oppresses the trans community to the point where they have no other recourse than violence. To put it mildly, this framing of the story is shameful.
This characterization of all evangelicals as fundamentally dangerous radicalizes a great many young people; in the case of the Nashville shooter, violently so. Ideas have consequences, and violent rhetoric often leads to violent actions.
But to be sure, many of the people who argue for what I believe to be a completely reasonable stance on gender affirming healthcare do so in a way that is undeniably bigoted. One of the more notable examples is Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh, who regularly characterizes trans activists not merely as dangerously misguided but as evil to their core—wicked abusers and child mutilators.
Now, trans activists are also being described as domestic terrorists.
For example, William Wolfe argued, “This might be one of the first major acts of ‘trans terrorism’ against Christians in the United States.”
In the days following the shooting, conservative pundits have increasingly ramped up language of violence, including Tucker Carlson who referred to the trans community as the “natural enemy” of the Christian community, adding that “one side is likely to draw blood before the other side.”
This type of rhetoric is deeply troubling. While it is coming from self-described Christians, it does not embody the ethos of Jesus. It creates a sense of embattlement against a particular group identity whom we accuse of “coming for our kids.” But, as horrifying as the events of this week have been, there is no grand conspiracy on the part of trans activists to murder Christian children.
Though emotions are high, we must pause to evaluate whether the tenor of our engagement in this conversation is exacerbating the very problem that contributed to an outbreak of violence in the first place. After all, hatred begets hatred. And once hatred reaches its breaking point, it spills over into violence. Violence begets more violence, which begets more hatred, and on the flywheel spins.
This isn’t to even remotely suggest that Christians brought the Nashville shooting upon themselves. But when hatred, suspicion, mischaracterization, and dehumanization are the order of the day for people on both sides of the culture war, we are all headed for catastrophe.
We live in a day and age where compromise on policy is tantamount to compromise on morals. Empathy is a sin, cooperation a vice. Should we really be terribly surprised when people literally take to the streets in violence?
There has to be a better way. There has to be a way to break the cycle of violence and hatred. And there is.
Here’s what Jesus has to say.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
(Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44)
Regardless of how kind and winsome we resolve to be, Christians will continue to be called bigots for what we believe about gender, sexuality, or any number of things. Do not respond in kind. Even in moments like these when we feel the most pain and fear, do not return hatred for hatred.
This isn’t to say that we don’t speak the truth in the face of opposition. But we must never lose sight of the fact that those who oppose us are created in the image of God. They are not enemy combatants in the culture war; they are fellow image-bearers whom, in spite of everything, we love.
We hold our problems in common. Seven lives were needlessly lost this week. In order to address the societal maladies that lay beneath this tragedy, we need to also bear in mind our common humanity.
It has often been said that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” There’s something deeply wrong with the system by which we operate. May we look past our culture war talking points long enough to work together, by God’s grace, to fix it.